As they segued from a stretch of one game in eight days to five over the next eight, the Pittsburgh Penguins hoped to take advantage of a rare luxury in this season’s Olympics-compressed schedule to heal some injured bodies. They also hoped to take advantage of the opportunity for some longer, harder practices to address the areas of their game that resulted in more than a few by-the-skin-of-their-teeth victories in their recent run of success.
Pittsburgh did get back a few of their missing players, as defenseman Paul Martin (fractured tibia) and forwards James Neal (upper-body), Jayson Megna (knee) and Chuck Kobasew (lower-body) all returned to the lineup from absences ranging from one game (Neal) to nearly two months (Martin). But, instead of their practice work fixing the lapses in their game, everything that’s been wrong with the Penguins lately bubbled to the surface in Monday’s embarrassing, 5-1 home loss to the Florida Panthers.
“I think we’ve been flirting with being on that side of a game for a little bit here,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We’ve had some games where we’ve come back, luckily, and we definitely showed character in those games, but I don’t think we’ve played a complete game in a while now. It caught up to us today.”
There was plenty of blame to go around. While goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury – leading the league in wins with 27 – acknowledged it was hardly his best performance of the season, his club continued its recent run of haphazard defensive play in front of him, including eight giveaways.
The Penguins outshot the Panthers 14-7 in the first period and 36-28 in the game but, when nothing would go past Florida netminder Scott Clemmensen, Pittsburgh showed little resilience. They got a brief sign of life with an early third-period goal from defenseman Matt Niskanen that tightened the score to 3-1, but then sacrificed two goals in 12 seconds midway through the frame that effectively put the game away for the Panthers.
“Sometime in the first, I think you just got the sense that it wasn’t going to be one of those games where we were flying on all cylinders,” Niskanen said. “But, I think when you recognize that as a group, you’ve just got to play really simple and really hard. Even if you oversimplify it, at least you’re making hard plays with the puck. You’ve got to check, you’ve got to do those things that kind of work yourself out of it if it’s not going the right way, and we didn’t do that. We just didn’t have much of a push at all today.”
And although statistics show adversity has favored the Penguins over the past few injury-riddled seasons – the team consistently performs better when working with makeshift lineups than its preferred NHL roster – they wouldn’t blame this loss on the injured payers being relied upon too much or trying to reacclimate themselves to the lineup.
“That could potentially be a problem, getting new guys back [who] haven’t played a game – for a few guys, it’s been over a month – but tonight, no, it’s not,” Niskanen said. “I think tonight, throughout our group, we were just awful. Bad execution, bad work ethic. We just weren’t hungry enough to win a loose puck, win a battle, and they came in here and beat the crap out of us.”
Tuesday, the team regrouped in preparation for Wednesday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, the second of four they’ll play this week. And they’ll need to pay significantly more attention to their own end of the ice against a team that – with the sixth-best goals-against average in the league – isn’t likely to give Pittsburgh much if they fall behind.
“It hasn’t been good, the number of goals-against that we’ve given up, [going] back probably to just after the Christmas break,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “The details of our game, playing strong defensively, playing strong away [from the puck] … it has lacked.”
“Just [be] a calming presence and don’t spend as much time in our own end,” Martin said of his approach. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can put the puck in the net but, I think, the better team defense we play, the better we end up looking; we get [more] chances than if we’re taking [defensive] chances.”
They’ll also need to fix a few things from a mental perspective.
“I think we have better,” Crosby said. “We have to find a way to put 60 minutes together and [against Florida] I don’t know if we put 10 together. We didn’t give ourselves a chance.”
“It’s uncharacteristic for our team to lay an egg like that,” Niskanen said. “Over an 82-game schedule, we’ll have some bad nights where we make mistakes or our decision-making is off or things like that but, since I’ve been here, the compete and the work ethic has always been at a premium. It’s just there; we never even have to talk about it. So I think we’ve got to recognize that it was awful and get ready for a real hard-nosed game on Wednesday.”